The Environmental Protection Agency killed a panel responsible for providing scientific expertise on particulate matter Thursday, according to an internal email the agency sent former panel members, which Earther obtained. This class of pollutants isn’t always on the public’s mind, but it should be.
Particulate matter refers to small particles that spew out of car exhaust and industrial smokestacks. These particles can enter a person’s lungs and reach their heart, triggering a variety of diseases including cancer. Particulate matter is an especially pernicious threat to the low-income families and communities of color who live closest to pollution sources like power plants or highways.
That’s why the government’s dismantling of the Particulate Matter Review Panel is so concerning. The panel, first convened in 2010 to help develop the first National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter, consists of subject matter experts who offer their knowledge to help the EPA determine if regulations surrounding particulate matter need to be strengthened, weakened, or stay the same. With the panel disbanded, the EPA’s expertise on this deadly class of pollutants is lessened.
Ana Diez Roux, dean of Drexel University’s School of Public Health, was the first chair of the panel. Her job—and that of the rest of the 18 to 25 people who sit on the panel—was to review the federal air quality standards once every five years. She was consistently impressed during her time there “by the rigor, the objectivity, and dedication” the panel members—academics, scientists, and engineerings—displayed when asked to offer their advice.
“The fact that this is being dismantled in a number of different ways is very, very worrisome and could have major implications for public health in this country,” Diez Roux told Earther.
Expert advisory panels like this one currently exist for the other air pollutants the agency is required to regulate under the Clean Air Act, like lead and ozone. But the EPA was clear when it announced its “Back-to-Basics” memorandum in May that it wanted to simplify the review process for air quality standards, including particulate matter. Shuttering this panel could help the agency wrap up this review faster.
“Removing the science is one way you speed up the process at the expense of our health,” Gretchen Goldman, a research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists told Earther.
Now, this review process will be left to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). CASAC has been around since 1977 to provide independent consultation to the EPA on clean air regulation. The seven person committee always played a role in reviewing particulate matter standards, but its job came after the expert panel had already offered its guidance.
If the EPA desires a certain outcome from this review, seven people are easier to convince than nearly 30. The EPA confirmed CASAC would be taking on this task but did not respond to Earther’s questions on why it killed the Particulate Matter Review Panel in the first place. (It also didn’t to the New York Times, which was the first to report the news.)
Still, this move away from science is in line with the current trend of sidelining scientific expertise at the EPA. The agency has recently proposed to keep important health research out of policy, and it’s killed other expert advisory committees while stocking its main science advisory board with industry types.
If the EPA is down with more mercury in the air, no one should be all that surprised at its indifference toward particulate matter. Maybe the agency will simply leave its particulate matter standards alone, but it’s damn near impossible they’ll be strengthened.